In Nigeria, Parents Tormented by Stumbling Search for Girls Kidnapped by Boko Haram


Mothers and Fathers Mourn as Trail Goes Cold for Abducted Girls; No Answers in Sight to Brutal Militancy of Abubakar Shekau

ABUJA, Nigeria—The morning after Mkeki Ntakai learned of the mass kidnapping by Boko Haram, he fired up his rickety motor scooter and sped down a dirt road in northern Nigeria to find his 16-year-old daughter.

Mr. Ntakai was joined by more than 100 fathers, uncles and big brothers, all seeking several hundred girls taken by force from a boarding school in the remote hamlet of Chibok. The men followed a trail of hair ties and scraps of clothing the girls dropped to lead rescuers. One found his daughter’s flip-flop; another retrieved a remnant of a school uniform.

But the kidnappers had too big a head start. Three weeks later, the trail has gone cold for the 223 girls still missing. More than 50 managed to escape in the first few hours, jumping out of the beds of pickup trucks or slipping away while they were supposed to be washing dishes.

The rest are presumed held by the jihadi group, whose leader Abubakar Shekau said he would sell the girls as slaves.

The abduction has shaken Nigeria, bringing residents to tears and forcing the country’s president to admit that the leaders of Africa’s largest economy have no immediate answer to the brutal militancy.

“We’re not defending what we’re doing or what we’ve done before,” President Goodluck Jonathan said Thursday at the World Economic Forum he is hosting in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital.

Following a global twitter campaign—#BringBackOurGirls—foreign governments, including the U.S., have offered advisers and satellite data to help find the girls. Mr. Jonathan, presiding over a military that has made little headway against Boko Haram, welcomed the assistance. On Wednesday, Nigeria offered a $300,000 reward, or about $1,345 per girl.

The soft-spoken Mr. Ntakai said he has spent a lifetime watching Nigeria fail on its early promise of independence. For the past two decades, through military rule and a shaky shift to democracy, the 50-year-old government forest ranger planted trees to defend against the encroaching desert. In the past three years, he said, Boko Haram has made the task too dangerous to continue.


Hope, he said, rested with his daughter, Hauwa Ntakai, a star volleyball player at her school. She is third in her class and studying to be a nurse or an economist, he said: “Very, very smart.”

From her school, Hauwa sent frequent letters home. “The reason why I write you this short note is that you ask me and said that among us did I find a friend,” she wrote her brother two years ago. “Yes I have find a Good friend.” She kept lists of the girls she liked, and the ones she thought were “stupit wrong.”

Hauwa’s school papers, written in looping handwriting, spell out the alleged heresy that turned her into prey for Boko Haram, an Islamic sect steeped in medieval doctrine. The name Boko Haram, translated from local Hausa language, means Western education is a sin. Its leaders believe secular education has corrupted Nigerians. In pamphlets, videos, and sermons distributed throughout the north, Boko Haram demands girls be denied schooling.

“Picture taken from spacecraft at great height clearly show the curvature of the earth,” Hauwa Ntakai wrote in block letters for science class. And, contrary to Boko Haram belief: “Proof that the earth is spherical,” she wrote.

Outside of school, the girl’s homeland grew dangerous. In the past several years, Boko Haram has fallen deeper under the control of Mr. Shekau, who relishes playing the part of a madman. “Killings, killings, killings!” he declared in one tape. “Now our religion is killings, killings, killings!”

As early as January, Nigeria’s government had reason to suspect Boko Haram was planning to kidnap girls, said Fatima Akilu, director of behavioral analysis at Nigeria’s National Security Adviser’s office. Reports of abductions had increased, and Mr. Shekau appeared in a video promising more because “in Islam, it is allowed to take infidel women as slaves.”

Boko Haram’s kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls in Nigeria last month has captured global attention. How common is it for teenagers to be abducted in West Africa and forced into sexual servitude? Where can they end up? WSJ’s Jason Bellini has #TheShortAnswer.

On April 14, about 500 girls were in the dorms of Chibok Government Secondary School preparing for final exams. Among them were Margaret Yama, 17 years old, and her best friend, Awa. Another, Elizabeth Joseph, liked to read the Bible by lantern at night. Hauwa Mutah wanted to be a biochemist.

Around 11 p.m., calls from nearby villages alerted families that Boko Haram was heading their way. Margaret’s brother, Samuel Yama, said he ran from his bedroom wearing only his boxers and hid in a mountain cave.

Hundreds of villagers joined him on the mountainside, crouching in bushes, caves or trees, as they watched scores of Boko Haram fighters arrive in pickup trucks. The dozen or so soldiers stationed in the town fled. For hours, villagers said, they heard and saw rocket and machine-gun fire.

“The gunshots were like the whole country being turned upside down,” Mr. Yama recalled.

Mr. Ntakai said, “It was louder than a world war.”

Seven minutes before midnight, Mr. Yama’s sister, Margaret, called by cellphone crying and saying she was surrounded by Boko Haram. “I was telling her to flee,” he said, “and the call cut off.”

Relatives called local government representatives, but no soldiers arrived.

At dawn, the men and women of Chibok climbed down the mountain. Mr. Ntakai went to his daughter’s school. The complex was burned down. A girl who escaped told him what happened, and Mr. Ntakai told his wife, Rebecca. “She sat on the ground,” he said. “There was nothing she could answer.”

That afternoon, about 100 men gathered to pool their money for ransom. They mustered 12,000 naira, worth about $70.

The next morning, they set out on the rough, dirt road that connects their village to the world. They passed villagers who repeated two messages: They had seen the girls pass, and it was too dangerous to follow them.

One by one, most of the men returned to Chibok. By nightfall, about 15 who continued advancing reached a dirt road that villagers told them marked the entrance to the forests claimed by Boko Haram.

“They said, ‘If you enter that place you will not even escape alive and you will lose your life and your daughter,” said Lalai Mutah, the father of Hauwa, the aspiring biochemist. He and the last of the men agreed to turn back.

Two days later, the soldiers stationed in the town returned, parents said, but refused to seek the girls held by Boko Haram.

Around that time, Mr. Jonathan on TV described Boko Haram’s terrorist attacks as “temporary,” and he boasted that “terror would not stop Nigeria from moving forward.”

But frustration over his government’s inability to stop rebel attacks or gain the girls’ freedom swelled, beginning with daily street protests in Nigeria.

A string of bloody Boko Haram attacks have since followed: Car bombings in the capital have killed 91 people; an attack in a trading town Monday slaughtered more than 300 people. More than 1,500 people are estimated to have been killed in Boko Haram attacks in the first three months of the year.

On Tuesday, there was an unsuccessful attempt to steal a school bus filled with children.

Mr. Shekau has mocked Nigeria’s president for wishing away the Islamic militant group. In one video last month, the Boko Haram commander said, “Jonathan, you are too small for us, let’s address your masters like Obama.”

In Chibok, school principal Asabe Kwambura began compiling a list in a notebook in the days after the kidnapping, as parents lined up to give her the name and age of their missing daughters.

A few days later, the town heard that the military had said the missing girls had escaped or were rescued. Children in the village, Mr. Ntakai said, started singing at the news.

The military later retracted its statement, attributing the mix-up to Mrs. Kwambura, who later denied she had said anything about that. “Everybody was bursting in tears again,” Mr. Ntakai said.

A week later, Kashim Shettima, the governor of Chibok’s Borno State, arrived. His motorcade stopped at the school, on the outskirts of town, where he spoke for 20 minutes, encouraging the residents to pray.

The governor’s wife visited a week after her husband. She spoke at length, parents said, but had no good news. “She also was crying,” Mr. Ntakai said.

On May 1, police announced they would dispatch officers to the town to begin their investigation of the kidnapping. On Thursday, relatives said, they still hadn’t arrived. Police commissioner Tanko Lawan didn’t respond to calls for comment. He had previously said Chibok was in a dangerous area for his men.

On Wednesday, a local government official, stationed in the distant city of Maiduguri, came to Chibok. He told parents not to worry. “By God’s grace,” Mr. Ntakai recalled him saying, “these girls will come out.”

The school principal on Thursday said she was ready to publish the names and photos of 194 of the missing girls. She assembled them, she said, without help from the police.

—Gbenga Seun Ijagba in Abuja, Nigeria, contributed to this article.


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